BY JAMIE (AND LUKAS ;-))
I know I promised that Lukas would write the story from Valbone Valley (especially so you don’t think TwoSundowners have been reduced to OneSundowner ;-)). But he had to go to London for work unexpectedly and I offered to write the story after all. But cheer up: The parts about hiking and running are his domain.
We left Prizren in Kosovo with kind of a heavy heart. We didn’t know what would expect us in Albania and from the past weeks I have made the experience that I’m always dreading to leave behind a place I enjoyed. Probably because you never know what will expect you next. And seriously, deciding on a location by Booking-pictures is fucking hard. I have already made my peace with the fact that I can never rely on what I see on the website. So I’m always bracing myself for the worst (because so far I haven’t managed to kick the ugly little pessimist out of my heart).
Albania surprised us all right from the very start: It was the absolute first time we had a pleasant border crossing. It was probably because the border on which we crossed was high up in the mountains and they are not getting a lot of traffic passing through. So the border officers are not bitchy and mean, on a power-high so to say, but actually happy and cheerful to see you. They were joking around, mocking Ryley for his beard and asking him if he has any bombs with him. This might sound a little weird when re-told but in that moment it was hilarious because in a non-European country – while you are crossing the border with people from 4 different countries and the car filled with all of your belongings you naturally tense up and worry.
New Country, New Scenery
Right after the border, the scenery changed. The mountains got steeper, there was a lot of rivers, the colors were just more intense – and of course, there was a shitload of bomb shelters. Not really hidden but it took us a while to notice them. Once you see them you can’t unsee them anymore, they are literally everywhere. We recently watched Wardogs (recommendation! A great movie!) so we know that Albania “prepared itself for an invasion and a war that never came”. So the sights are actually not that depressing, the remainders you see are just very old and look like someone forgot them. I guess getting rid of all the signs of war is just too expensive so people accepted having a bomb shelter in their garden and probably don’t even notice it anymore.
Our destination was Hotel Margjeka in Valbone valley. When we arrived, the valley was in the shadows of the steep mountains above. We drove alongside a cyan looking river (seriously, it looked almost fake – or toxic) for half an hour before we found ourselves at the end of the road. We had missed the hotel and at the end of the valley, the road actually stops.
When we finally found the hotel we were stunned. It is situated beautifully above the trees, with an amazing view over the valley. There were horses in the back and we were welcome by the german hostess and her son. Ok, I’m biased here, after all the English-speaking I was overjoyed to talk to some fellow germans. But the others confirmed – those people were just super nice 😉
We had a great time in the hotel. Seriously, it was great. The heating wasn’t on and it was actually freezing in the place, but the hosts were always making sure that there was a fire burning – and that we got the place closest to it. They actually sent people away from the fireplace when we came into the restaurant 😀
We were a bit wide-eyed upon our arrival in Albania – we couldn’t find an ATM anywhere on the way from the border to Valbone so all we had was Euros and some Macedonian denars. We also didn’t consider that there wouldn’t be any supermarkets or shops in the valley. Luckily for us, the hosts didn’t mind the euros and were happily providing us with food.
Aww, the food… I’m still starting to drool when I think about it. The food was super rich in flavor and also rich in volume 😀 It seemed like most products were from local farmers, so we mostly ate things they actually produce in the valley or close by. I think I’ve gained some weight, already from munching down all of the awesome cornbread and cheeses. We got homemade raki on the house and on the second day we got surprise cake for breakfast. They were serving homemade tea made from mountain herbs – delicious.
One thing I will never understand about the Balkans is why bathrooms don’t have a separate shower… It’s right in the room, you just stand in the bathroom and shower – everything gets wet, including your clothes, towels and the toilet paper. The reason for building it this way is beyond me. (PLEASE write in the comments if you know why I need to know!) We have seen those showers everywhere from Romania to Albania. Since we were four people sharing one bathroom it was under water constantly. But that’s just a side-note. The place was honestly amazing and the people extraordinarily nice.
Hiking To Kukaj
We stayed in Valbone for a relatively short time and so we had to pack the exploration together a bit. First, we went for a short hike to (and beyond) the village of Kukaj. It is really more of a settlement than a village, about 2km from the main road. Google Maps says there is a road to it. If you are tempted to visit by car or even booked the hostel (yes on of the 4 houses is a hostel 🙂 ), bring your mad driving skills.
The road (and the hike) crosses several streams of the river. After it continues up an old forest road steeply into the valley. You reach the settlement of Kukaj after relatively short time. The road narrows a bit and continues up the hill all the way to the main ridge. This point also marks the border with Montenegro and you can cross to the Vusinje valley. I have been there a couple of years back and can definitely recommend it.
Another nice crossing you can do is to the village of Theth, another great mountain center in Albania. There is also too much to explore here for a year of walking about, especially for the more advanced mountain goats ;-). This awesome page will give you more info.
Running To The Valbone Spring
In the afternoon, Ryley and I set out to explore another part of the valley. We went running to be able to cover everything in the daylight. After the paved road ends, the trail continues through the river bed to the end of the valley. With very mild slope, it was an awesome run. The mountain faces were all orange from the evening light. As the sun started setting behind the ridge, the temperature turned very quickly. The stone river bed was covered with ice and became very slippery. Ryley was loudly vocalizing his excitement with the ice. It is always a pleasure to see the Aussies get amazed by cold (like me seeing big waves 🙂 ).
We have not actually found the spring everyone was talking about. All we found were two abandoned sheds. The way back turned into trying to catch the setting sun and we have succeded. We have showered and chilled by the time girls got back (read below). It was dark and running turned out to be the correct choice.
Photography In Valbone
JAMIE IS BACK
It doesn’t matter if you are a professional photographer or an amateur that just loves to play around with nature-shots, Valbone is THE place for you. It has amazing nature so you can capture landscapes with mountains, stunning light-situations and so on. By night you can take long exposure shots because there is no lights in the valley messing up the darkness. On top of that there is also really cool man-made things to photograph: at the end of the main road the valley isn’t over. But you have to continue by foot. You follow the empty river bed (No idea how to get there in the spring) and reach a village soon after.
Now this was fascinating. The hostess told us that the people abandon this village for the winter and only come back in the warmer seasons. Sara and I went around there to explore. Some of the buildings were literally abandoned, open windows and doors gave it away. Others left us rather unsure if they were actually empty. We managed to give each other the creeps by talking about horror movies while exploring the (maybe) empty village. Old shoes of children on the ground and weird inexplicable patterns of sticks in meadows did not help ease the tension, I might add 😀
If you continue after the village you can reach the actual end of the valley – a spring were the river origins from. Shortly before, there is an area that doesn’t get touched by the sun during wintertime at all so it is overgrown by ice-crystals which makes for a slippery but beautiful exploration.
You can probably guess what the other interesting man-made things are: damn, right – some bomb shelters. One of the ridges in Valbone is on the border of Montenegro (understand former Yugoslavia) and you can tell, which way it is by the bomb shelters.
The time we had in Valbone was definitely too short for my taste. As Lukas mentioned above, there are so many cool hikes around this area that are worth walking. Some of them are even multi-day expeditions. I’m not a huge hiker but because of Valbones beauty even I am tempted to try out those 😉 All in due time, with more daylight comes more hiking. Bye bye Valbone, I’m definitely going to return.
Check out more pictures in the gallery – they are awesome 😉 Especially some goofy selfies with the Aussies are worth seeing 😉
Also published on Medium.